Holding on to our heroes
‘Why does a nation still admire people like the heroes of Dunkirk who — so far as I can see — they in no way still aspire to become?’
Being late to most parties, it was only on a recent flight to the US that I finally got a chance to watch the movie . The recent rash of World War II movies obviously tempts us into contemporary analogies, and loath though I am to make them, Dunkirk has several. Yet what was most affecting was what seemed most remote. There is a scene in the movie where the flotilla of small boats finally arrives on the horizon. Kenneth Branagh’s Royal Navy officer spots them and in a moment of soundtrack genius the chords of Elgar’s “Nimrod” variation sync in a modern, altered, but recognisable form.
However, it is the stances of the people on the ships that brought a tear to the eye. Over-stylised, perhaps, but the men and women who were manning the ships all stood like statues as they sailed past. Grim-faced seamen and sturdy but certain women, all staring ahead and un-showily going to do their duty. The type was recognisable in an instant, even to someone of my generation. They were the sort of people I grew up around. Yet how remote and foreign they seem today. Why does a nation still admire people who — so far as I can see — they in no way still aspire to become?
Every day seems to bring examples of people who were once admired but can be admired no more. Sex scandals rolled across the churches and politics years ago, but recent months have seen the last bastions of unfettered admiration tumble one by one: entertainment, Hollywood and now charities. The revelation that Oxfam, among others, was actively covering up appalling sexual abuse may be said to leave the public square with almost no living institutions to admire.
Though impossible to say where all this will lead, there are some early hints. As reactions to the exposé of Brendan Cox — widower of the murdered MP Jo Cox, former charity boss and alleged groper — shows, it appears that people will choose to forgive those who are roughly of their own political persuasion while continuing ruthlessly to attack those whose politics differ from their own. So a groper on your own side will be forgiven while a mildly inappropriate joke from someone in the opposing political camp will not.
Recognising this leaves me in a tricky situation. As I mentioned in this place a year ago, over the last decade Tariq Ramadan has probably been my very closest enemy. Of all the post-Harvey Weinstein accusations, those against him are the most serious. At present he sits in a French jail, remanded in custody on two rape charges. I always expected a particularly disastrous debate with me might finish him off. Now I must accept that he has been brought low in the wake of the Weinstein scandal. And yet people still make predictions.
Standpoint’s Editor noted last month the remarkable new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, Charles I: King and Collector. I came away convinced that it was one of the best shows for years: the profusion of Van Dycks, the assembly of just about every major portrait of the king, the wall of Holbein portraits. But what moved me above all was Rembrandt’s portrait of his mother. One of the first Rembrandts to enter a British collection, it shows the elderly lady in an elaborate dark hood, the gold thread detail of which gathers to illuminate her face, turning her grim, worn features radiant. A difficult king. But a peerless collector.
The BBC and Netflix have joined up to make a new eight-part adaptation of Homer called Troy: Fall of a City. The news brought to mind John Barton, co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who died in January. During my last year of school Barton came to give a talk and, as I was an admirer of his book Playing Shakespeare, it was suggested that I walk him out afterwards. We walked slowly along the street and he immediately launched into a conversation about Troilus and Cressida, which I had recently seen and for which Barton acted like an agent. He was an especial admirer of the scene at the end of Act IV when Ulysses and Hector talk on the eve of battle.
Ulysses: For yonder walls, that pertly front your town,
Yond towers, whose wanton tops do buss the clouds,
Must kiss their own feet.
Hector: I must not believe you:
There they stand yet, and modestly I think,
The fall of every Phrygian stone will cost
A drop of Grecian blood: the end crowns all,
And that old common arbitrator, Time,
Will one day end it.
Ulysses: So to him we leave it.
I doubt the BBC/Netflix adaptation will rise to such heights. But one of the most remarkable things about Shakespeare — and Barton’s lifelong evangelism of him — is that treasures like this hide even in the lesser-known plays.